A glossary of tattoo-related terms
Old School / Traditional / American Style
Also known as Americana, it derives from the sailors’ tattooing tradition. These tattoos have bold black outlines, simple shading work and have a simple color palette. The images are in 2 dimensions and feature symbols, such as eagles, flags, clovers, pin-up girls, sailors, daggers, skulls, roses and dice.
Strongly inspired by graffiti art, cartoons, hip hop, and pop art, this style appeared in the ’70s. Has more complex elements than the old school, such as shading, depth and 3D effects. The tattoos are easily recognized by their vibrant colors, degradês, irreverent themes, and intentional disproportions. Cartoonish looks are frequently present.
Also known as New Traditional, this style generally avoids bright and vibrant colors (present in New School) and focuses on more natural shapes and gradients. It recuperates some of the Old School imagery while incorporating new patriotic imaginarium, such as native americans, portraits, art deco and skulls.
Tribal as a style encompasses several indigenous and primitive tattoo traditions. Indigenous tribes would use symbols as a way to engrave the passing of rituals, to mark social status, to signal group belonging, wartime achievement and for spiritual and ceremonial reasons.
It is also used to refer to the modern tribal tattoos that mimic ancient traditions.
It’s characterised by the sole use of black ink and easy to grasp patterns. Blackwork derives from the Tribal tradition. This development happened as a natural process and the lack of attachment to the ancient traditions allowed individuals to determine their own designs and draw their own meanings.
In practical terms, all tattoos are a set of dots, inked with pigments that, together, create a bigger picture. What makes Dotwork a style of its own is the artist’s ability to harmoniously use dots of different sizes to create sensations of depth, contrast, and continuity.
This is done by coordinating quantity, distance, position and the size of the dots per opposition to the traditional strokes (used to create solid areas or lines).
Focusing solely on the use of black and grey ink, this style became popular during the ’90s and was inspired by post-impressionist techniques such as Pointillism.
In this style, you can have repeating patterns, symmetry, real objects and figures, as long as they follow a pattern. It uses the power of geometry to create a visually appealing whole.
This style isn’t defined by its shapes, symbols or colors, but rather by the feelings transmitted. And to create these feelings, artists generally reduce the shading detail and limit the color gradients. They stick with 2-dimensional drawing and define the boundaries with solid black outlines.
Much like American traditional, you’ll most often find concrete elements (figures, animals, plants). The main difference is that these elements are either a loyal reproduction of an original drawing (from TV, books, fantasy) or are an artwork shaped by the artist’s own style and imagination.
Mimicking hand-drawn features, this style has overlapping lines, incomplete strokes, and elements that do not fully close. The shading work is bold and rough and some parts of the drawing are just negative space. These elements create contrast and contribute to the style’s goal of not being perceived as perfect, but instead a natural process of creation.
Mostly used to depict animals, plants, and landscapes, it easily embeds emotional charge and sensations of movement. Unlike minimalist style, it can depict several objects and present complexity and repetition of lines.
This style is characterized by vivid colors that spread throughout the skin as if ink was spilled on a canvas. The colors can be used alongside a figure structured with black outlines and frequently the color spills over through this main image.
Despite the colors being the main element, it’s the work between shading and contrast that gives this style it’s essence. The way the colors change gradient, flow through space and cross the black outlines, almost as if by mistakes, makes us forget that it was made with a needle and not a brush.
Irezumi / Japanese
Irezumi is the Japanese word for tattoo and the most popular style deriving from Japanese culture. It was born as a way to erase penal tattoos - markings on the body of criminals that would make them easily recognizable. Originally these tattoos were made by hand, using wooden handles and metal needles attached via silk thread.
This style took off in Japan in 1827 when paintings and woodblock prints from Utagawa Kunioshy, known as the precursor of the manga, became vastly popular. Some of Utagawa’s works featured criminals and outlaws covered in tattoos that spread throughout the back and arms, which increased the popularity of the style among the general public.
Despite being outlawed up until 1948 and being strongly associated with the Yakuza, this style has kept it’s traditional looks. The only major shift is that, unlike traditional Irezumi, the tattoo’s design is now more and more influenced by the clients instead of being left to the artist to choose the composition and design.
A tattoo style specific to the japanese mafia that evolved from the Irezumi tradition. The two are generally used interchangeably but they have different ideologies. The Yakuza tattoos evolved first as a way to erase penal tattoos and later on as a way to signal belonging to criminal groups. These tattoos are still in use today as rites of initiation and signs of commitment to the group.
Each group can have their own specific set of symbols and compositions.
Anime / Cartoon
This style gives life to characters and memories from manga, cartoons, video games, and animations. They are usually tattooed by fans of the genre who want to materialize their love for certain characters and shows. They preserve nostalgic feelings, childhood memories or impactful moments from the shows such as Dragon ball, Naruto, Death Note, Pokemon or My Neighbour Totoro, to name a few.
Although Anime tattoos can depict Japanese manga, this style should not be confused with the traditional Japanese tattooing style.
Refers to the writing content of any tattoo. Whether using Latin letters, Arabic alphabet, Cyrillic or Kanji, this style is characterized by the communication of written meaning. Therefore, you can see all kinds of numbers, words, and symbols made with virtually all types of fonts.
Generally single pieces, these tattoos are deconstructed into the most basic components.
More often than not, only black ink will be present and fine lines will make up most of the image. Empty space is used to fill the main theme which allows details and secondary thematics to be included in the whole, without having them specifically drawn.
For a work to be minimalist, it's not the size of the tattoo that matters but following the philosophy of simplification
Portraits and depictions of animals are the most common themes for this style, with the first being one of the most challenging types of tattoos since proportions, asymmetry and reproduction of light sources are extremely important for an image to look realistic.
To work this style artists have to use fine lines, contrast, shading and doing 3D is a must. Often, needles of different sizes will be used interchangeably and if the tattoo is colored, a wide range of tones are used (going all the way to white ink). If it’s black and grey, the artists will have to either use grey wash or have a color palette with grayscale to give life to perspectives and contrast.
It’s characterized by the presence of thin lines, absence of color, shape and generally in 2D. These tattoos are sometimes abstract shapes and other times minimalist versions of objects and beings.They and can have a lot of detail and still look light, almost minimalist. It’s often used to depict flowers or gentle animals and scenarios.
The patterns and figures are strongly associated with the LSD and DMT trip imaginarium (as well as other hallucinogenic drugs) and can be a product of either the artist’s or the client’s imagination. It can feature anything from fractals to mushrooms, to aliens, to third eyes, and seeks to capture a hallucinatory state of mind where anything can be seen and felt.
This style is characterized by a wide palette of strong colors that spread and mix throughout the tattoo. Design rules don’t have to be followed and optical Illusion are very welcomed.
As a tattoo style, it’s often used to represent dreams, disorganized ideas and fantastic ways of depicting the world. It challenges logic and order and prioritizes creativity and awe. These tattoos generally express individuality and critical thinking.
This style became popular in the end of the 20th century, when tattoo artists started creating their own on-skin surrealist images. This appear both as mimic paintings from famous authors (like Salvador Dali, Frida Kahlo or Max Ernst) and attempt to bring to life a client fantasy by mixing several elements in an unusual/incoherent manner.
Surrealist tattoos should be aesthetically coherent and never completely chaotic or devoid of meaning. They balance elements of realism with elements of fantasy in order to give life to an unreal but understandable world, which can sometimes be used to depict a representation of the unconscious mind.
Generally created in a realistic manner, these are generally reproductions of photos of a loved one, a celebrity, an historical figure or a pet. This style is about capturing the face and main features of the person or animal you want to pay tribute to.
Initially an insult, the term started becoming popular in the 60’s as a way to describe Mexicans born in the USA. This style describes the type of tattoos hipanics chose to mark their identity and gang belonging (in a way, similar to Yakuza tattoos). These tattoos depict big compositions with religious imagery, angels, guns, quotes and portraits. Depending on the gang, certain tattoos could signify certains feats achieved (much like in the original Tribal tattoos and in the american traditional style).
Nowadays, you don’t have to belong to a gang in central america to boast one of these, but you have to be committed to a wide composition and several hours of inking in order to rock one.
Pinup / Pin-up
A tattoo that uses pin-up art. a pop culture symbol born in the 40’s that depicted voluptuous females in sensual poses. These tattoos almost always depict women in sexy poses and with semi-realistic features.
Comics / Manga
Tattoos that imitate traditional comic books and manga. Colored or back and white, the pictures are generally divided into frames (most often squares) that give a sensation of motion and action told as a physical book story.
These tattoos play with 3D illusions to make it look like underneath your skin there are mechatronic gears waiting to be unveiled. They make you look like a human cyborg due to the metallic and electric elements drawn in your skin.
Not a style per se, but a consequence of mixing (fusing) different styles into the same tattoo. This happens when one or more tattoo artists work on the same tattoo using different styles or techniques. For instance, if a tattoo piece has it’s left size in new school style and the right side in dotwork, it would be considered art fusion.
Inspired by greek, roman and indian ornamental art, these tattoos elements of mandalas, jewelry and feathers into a beautifully organized tattoo. Resembling geometric tattoos, this style is more common among women and the placement follows the shapes of the body, generally being found under the breasts, the upper back and neck or arms.
Also known as botanic or flower style, it’s the style of detailing flora elements, such as flowers, petals, fruits or any other botanical element. More common among women, it requires a great deal of specialization, whether color is present or not. Due to it’s wide popularity, you can find many artists dedicated solely to this style.
A style created by Simone Plaff and Volko Merschky in ‘98 in their Buena Vista Tattoo Club in Germany. It’s characterized by the presence of detailed realistic portraits or compositions with an abundance of black ink and strokes of red (sometimes blue).
When the tattoo is intentionally bad, ugly or with poor technique. It can be done as a provocation, to express a philosophy, nihilism or self-destructiveness.
Art style that imitates the Asian religious and cultural Mandala shapes. It’s composed of circles, squares and triangles and supposedly expressed the sacred connection between mankind and cosmos.
Black & Grey
Strong compositions that make an abundant use of black ink in several shades of grey. It can be used to depict several distinct elements or to create a single painting. Although often confused and used interchangeably with blackwork, they are different styles.
These were the tattoos made by seamen in the beginning of the 20th century used to mark achievements at sea. It is known for the use of nautical elements and symbolisms associated with them. For instance, tattooing a King Neptune meant you have crossed the Equator. Another example is the Sparrow, which was earned for every 5,000 nautical miles traveled (which is roughly a quarter of the earth's circumference).
They increase greatly in popularity with Sailor Jerry's work.
Tattoos made during prison time. The lack of proper equipment and (often lack of skill from the artists) give these tattoos a distinctive look. Generally, the more of these tattoos a convict has, the more time he has served in prison and the more respect he gets from his peers.
Mafia / Criminal
Refers to all the tattoos used to mark the lifelong commitment to an organized criminal group. These tattoos signify status, family, and loyalty to the group and are often more intense (in size and in visible areas) according to the level of commitment and seniority.
Each criminal organization has their own imagery. For instance, handguns are often seen in Mexican cartels. Stars in Silician mafia. Orthodox churches in Russian bratva. Mythological creatures in yakuza. Eagles in the Polish Mobs. Teardrops in North American gangs.
When a drawing technique is used to create the illusion that three dimensions are present. This style is often used in the depiction of realistic objects and animals, optical illusions and geometric figures.
Although forbidden in many religious and spiritual traditions, this is a popular style as many devotees choose to engrave on the skin their favorite passages, imagery or elements. Inspiration can come from paintings, scriptures and symbols of faith.
Dark, scary and shocking tattoos. You can find movie villains, skulls, naked bodies, portraits of serial killers, bloody scenarios and horrific compositions. Anything dark goes in this style for as long as it shocks the viewer.
A type of indigenous tattoo art that originated with the Maori people native from New Zealand. The symbols in the body demarcated the man or woman’s social position in the tribe and engraved life achievements.
In this tradition, the face is the most important canvas when it comes to tattooing, and therefore the more face tattoos a Maori had, the higher their social standing in the clan was.
Today, an aesthetic imitation of this style is reproduced in tattoo parlours throughout the world even though the original techniques, images and meanings may not be preserved.
A type of indigenous tattoo art that originated with the Australian Aborigines. It is inspired in the paintings of aborigenal tradition of the Dreamtime, the term used to describe the components of Aboriginal spiritual beliefs and existence, that everything was created by the spirits that now habit the land, the rocks, the river and the dreams. This style includes colorful, almost psychedelic, natural elements and animals.
Hawaiian kakau (kapu)
A type of indigenous tattoo art that originated with the Polynesean and went on to become sacred to the Hawaiian people. It was used mainly as a means to define the hierarchical place in the social structure.
Although its recognized as an important part of the Hawaiian tradition, it has almost become extinct on the island and only started coming back in recent years.
A type of indigenous tattoo art that originated in Polynesia and became widespread in Samoan. It was widely popular before the arrival of European settlers and missionaries, who tried to eradicate the tradition claiming it was barbaric and unchristian.
The word Tattoo actually comes from the Samoan word tatau. The Samoan tradition is rich and knows many forms, from the Pe'a, a male tattoo that covers from waist to knees, to the Malu, a female tattoo that covers the legs (just below the kneeS) to the upper thighs (just below the buttocks).
It is still used today in many different ways and artists are keeping it alive both with modern and with ancient tattooing techniques.
A type of tattoo style that originated in the british Isles. It refers to the ancient tattoos found in Celts and Picts. They mostly depicts knots, braids, spirals and crosses. Although most people don’t think of these as tribal art, they do go back to an ancient tattooing tradition.
Machines / Pieces / Instruments
Instruments used to sterilize needles and tattooing instruments. It’s mandatory to have one in every studio in most several countries.
Slang for Tattooing Machine. Most artists don’t use or like this term.
These machines are considered the standard for tattooing. They use an electromagnetic circuit to move the needle grouping. The coils create the resistance which is essential to properly regulate the machine's speed and power. This gives the artists more control during the tattooing process. They are the most commonly used type of tattooing machine.
The original tattooing machines, based on rotary technology. They use an electric motor to drive the needles, which gives them a harder hit. They are lighter than coil machines, so better to travel with and they make the tattooing experience a little easier by being noiseless and having no vibration.
Instrument controlled with the feed that starts and stops the movement of the needles in the tattoo machine.
Types of tattoos
Cosmetic / Permanent Makeup / Dermapigmentation / Hair pigmentation
The tattoos are not supposed to look like tattoos, but to substitute makeup permanently or to reduce flaws on the skin.
On women, you generally find these tattoos in order to give shape to the eyebrows and to create permanent eyeliner.
On men you’ll generally find micropigmentation in the scalp as a way to simulate growing hair in bald men.
You can also find it in the beard and eyebrows of people who have lost hair on those zones due to diseases or burns.
When an artist makes a tattoo on top of another tattoo you already had as so to erase the previous one with an improved version. This improved version can go all the way from just improving a few lines to having a completely new drawing unrelated to the previous one.
In order to do a cover-up, the old tattoo must be workable. This means that the colors can be too fresh and strong. Before a cover up, generally, some fading has already happened.
Templates of tattoos created by the artists that show examples of what the artist can do. They used to be hung up on walls (flash walls) for the clients to choose from after a random walk in. Nowadays they are not so used (in detriment of custom works) since artists are very versatile and most clients already know what they want when they contact the artist.
The opposite of a flash tattoo. When a tattoo was designed specifically for the client.
When no stencil is used by the artist to mark the lines that will be tattooe. The artist draws directly on the skin.
Stick and Poke
A hand-poke tattoo, generally done at home on the self. Consists of repeatedly inserting the needle with ink in the skin. Mostly done by people with no tattooing equipment or that are trying to achieve a more “do it yourself” look on their tattoo.
The oldest tattooing method. Consists of piercing the skin with a needle dot by dot. It’s a slower method, generally less painful and important for those who want to preserve the tradition.
An art form that consists of the use of a technique where several dots are put next to each other, without ever touching, creating the illusion of a bigger picture. Different colors and shades must be well placed for the image to come to life.
A technique that describes the use of a machine with a needle of a single tip to perform the tattoo. This technique requires precision and rigor and gives the tattooer the ability to create a more detailed piece in a smaller space. These pieces are generally small, heavily detailed and monochromatic, contrasting with the traditional style, where we can observe the use of strong colors, bold lines and little detail.
A hand-poke technique that originated in Japan. The tattoos are made by hand with a small handle-like instrument. Originally it was made with a bamboo stick.
Yantra / Sak Yants
A hand-poke technique that originated in the Khmer Empire and was later introduced to several countries in Southeast Asia. They used to be applied with a bamboo stick dipped in ink and could only be done by monk masters. These tattoos followed a determined set of patterns specific to the Yantra traditions and were believed to be magic, granting mystical powers, protection and good luck.
Not a tattooing technique, as no ink is inserted in the skin, but a method of permanent body modification that consists of intentionally scaring, etching, cutting or burning the skin in order to create words and designs.
Tattoo parlour lingo
When the ink reaches deeper skin layers than it should and the ink spreads to undesired parts of the skin, giving it a “shady” look around the main design.
The instrument on which the template of the tattoo is first drawn in order to later transfer it to the skin.
A collection of the artist’s works. This can be composed of only tattoos made, as well as include illustrations and flash works. The portfolios can be found both online (Tattoos Wizard, Instagram, etc.) and physically in the studio.
People who tattoo without proper training in the art of tattooing and without having made an apprenticeship. Generally found in prisons, gangs or operating in unlicensed studios and from their homes. Absence of proper equipment, lack of hygiene and tax avoidance allows them to practice lower rates than the average.
The process of taking care of your tattoo and skin in order to promote a proper recuperation.
A popular nickname given to Norman Keith Collins, one of the most famous tattoo artist, who popularized the sailor tattoos in the USA.
Studio / Parlour / Shop
The official spaces where tattoos (and other types of body modification) can be legally made. Studios can have fixed tattoo artists, known as residents, as well as guest artists, who travel to the studio to practice their art with new clients and alongside other artists. Studios can work with employment contracts, but it’s more frequent to rent their space to the artists or have them pay compensation for every client. Other expressions such as shop and parlour are often employed.
The material with which tattoos are made. Can also be used to refer to a tattoo.
The level of ink and color that was absorbed successfully for a tattoo into the client’s skin.
When a person has several unrelated and not connected tattoos on the skin, making it look like a set of seperate images was put together.
Drawings made on paper that were created as being potential tattoos. Artists make these to practice their technique, try different styles and expose new ideas. During Inktober, artists try to make at least one of these a day in order to improve their skills as tattoo artists. Most illustrations never make it to the stencil.
When a Tattoo loses some of its original color. This is constantly happening as soon as the tattoo is finished, but the process can be slowed down.
Fading can be accelerated by external elements such as friction, exposure to water, UV light and chemicals and laser light or by organic processes. These organic processes depend on the immune system and skin type of the tattoo carrier. Macrophage cells belonging to the immune system are responsible for absorbing the ink over time and eliminating it, that’s why tattoos fade over time.
Slang for tattoo placement
A tattoo generally made in the lower-back popular in the late 90s and early 21st century. More common in women than men, they often depict images of flowers, butterflies, quotes or tribal patterns. Popular in the media and movies, it developed a reputation associated with sexual appeal. It faded in popularity due to its subsequent association with sexual promiscuity.
A tattoo (or set of tattoos) that fully cover the arm. Generally they start on the shoulder and end on the wrist. Other variations can be present, such as a patchwork of several arm tattoos.
A tattoo that covers the whole back. Generally it’s a composition with several elements added through time to complete Japanese traditional pieces or black and grey works.
Large tattoo, generally with a single theme, that covers the whole torso and sometimes legs (full body suit). Generally seen in Yakuza members and circus performers.